Industry Minister James Moore vowed this week that Ottawa's latest wireless spectrum selloff would give Canadians "more choice, lower prices and better service."
It is a worthy goal, to be sure.
But in the short term, the only clear winner is the federal government itself, which pocketed $755.5-million in the auction of wireless frequencies.
Ottawa's search for more competition and a fourth national carrier in Ontario, British Columbia and Alberta remains an elusive goal, akin to the Holy Grail.
Up for grabs this time was a batch of 2,500-megahertz spectrum, which wireless carriers can deploy to handle more smartphone data traffic in rural areas. The biggest buyer was Telus Corp., which spent nearly $580-million to buy spectrum, mainly in provinces where it is already the No. 1 or No. 2 player.
The next most significant purchaser was Quebecor Inc., which owns Quebec's Videotron wireless service. It spent $187-million to buy airwaves in its home market, as well as in major cities in Ontario, Alberta and B.C.
But Quebecor has not committed to expanding outside Quebec, and some analysts doubt it ever will.
The auction is the latest in a series of strategic moves by Industry Canada and the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission to engineer more competition in the wireless industry. These efforts include limiting the dominant players' access to new spectrum and forcing the Big Three – Bell, Rogers and Telus – to share their networks with smaller players at regulated rates.
A ruling earlier this month by the federal telecom regulator limits what the major players can charge other carriers for roaming access – an effort the CRTC says is aimed at correcting "insufficient competition."
CRTC chairman Jean-Pierre Blais called the intervention historic and "not insignificant." In a statement, the CRTC said the decision would ensure "sustainable competition," innovation and investment.
Mr. Blais could have done more to address inadequate competition. He could, for example, have forced carriers to sell access to their networks to so-called mobile virtual network operators that resell wireless services.
And the roaming rates, which could take a year to put into effect, depend critically on new entrants, such as Videotron and Wind Mobile Corp., actually pushing into new markets. Only then will the capped roaming rates create more of the competition promised by the CRTC.
Quebecor remains cagey about its plans beyond Quebec. The company said it was "analyzing its options" in the wake of the spectrum auction.
Wind's plans are equally murky. To grow, it must persuade investors to put more capital into its network.
Wind Mobile chairman and founder Anthony Lacavera suggested this week that he's interested in some form of a tie-up with another player to challenge the dominance of the Big Three. Analysts say the most logical partner is Videotron.
"Incumbents have a completely dominant position and new entrants have to find a way to co-operate," Mr. Lacavera told Bloomberg News. "That could mean [a merger and acquisition]. That could mean strategic partnerships. It could mean anything."
A combination of the Wind brand and Quebecor's deep pockets might actually produce the enhanced "choice" Ottawa says it wants.
But that's speculative.
For eight years now, the Conservative government has put in place policies to encourage new entrants in the wireless sectors. And yet the Big Three still control 90 per cent of the market. And there is still no significant fourth player in three of the four largest provinces – Ontario, Alberta and B.C.
Significant quantities of wireless spectrum remain unused, or underused.
Critics complain that government efforts to engineer more competition are actually stifling investment.
"By limiting the access of large telecommunications companies to the new spectrum in favour of smaller players, and by forcing them to share their networks with their competitors at regulated rates, the government and the CRTC are missing the mark," authors Martin Masse and Paul Beaudry argued in a recent Montreal Economic Institute report. "The effect of these policies … is to deter current players from investing in new technology."
And Ottawa continues to ignore an obvious way to boost competition and investment – getting rid of all remaining foreign ownership rules in telecom.
Mr. Moore's low-price, more-choice promise remains more aspirational than real.